Alyssa Martin

From Crafting to Conducting Pioneering Research

Integrating electronics into textiles is the stuff Alyssa Martin’s dreams are made of. And at NSA's Laboratory for Physical Sciences, she found the opportunity to make her passions her career.

Have you ever received a sweater, lovingly knit by Grandma, and wished she’d made it with those special electronic fibers that would let you stream videos right on your cable-knit sleeve or broadcast a Wi-Fi signal right from your turtleneck collar? Of course not, because that’s just a fantasy. Or is it?

Integrating electronics into textiles is the stuff Alyssa Martin’s dreams are made of, and she’s working to make those dreams a reality with her research at NSA labs. With BS, MS, and PhD degrees in electrical engineering, a second MS degree in material science, and a dissertation focused on electronic textiles, you could say she’s the perfect person to take electronic–textile integration to the next level. In fact, Alyssa has already made significant strides in that direction.

As part of her dissertation, Alyssa created an emissive (light-emitting) knit textile display prototype with individually controllable pixels that was patented in 2020. Applications for this technology include a panel on a fabric fetal heart rate band that would display the output of the fetal heart rate monitor. Such a band would eliminate the need for a cumbersome network of sensors and wires and the results could be easily interpreted with a glance by sleep-deprived parents.

"We have unique position here, where our research really goes into mission," she says. "It's not just science for the sake of science."

Growing up, Alyssa always knew she wanted to do scientific research, to “solve hard problems and get paid to do it.” In fact, she started her research career during her senior year of high school, then entered college already planning to earn a PhD.

She was always drawn to both material science and electrical engineering but didn’t discover until later on in her studies that she could combine her love of knitting and sewing with her scientific research interests.

Her work at NSA scratches that dual itch, both to craft and to conduct pioneering research that makes a real-world impact. “We have a unique position here, where our research really goes into mission,” she says. “It’s not just science for the sake of science. That’s what’s exciting about it…. How great would it be if you always had wireless because you’re wearing it around? These are the kind of applications that are directly related to mission but also can be transitioned for the everyday person to use.”

Alyssa’s work in the additive manufacturing section of NSA’s model shop, allows her to see first-hand the practical applications of her lab work and how to adapt her ideas to meet the agency’s mission needs. She’s also leading a textile integrated electronics program, taking techniques that have been successful on rigid components and bringing them into the domain of flexible materials.

As if that weren’t enough to keep her busy, Alyssa is also raising her young daughter, who has already been exposed to more science than most high schoolers, even though she can’t yet talk in full sentences.

“My husband is a software engineer,” Alyssa explains. “My daughter has so many math and science books. She’s really into quantum physics, Newtonian physics and space.” With that auspicious beginning, there’s a good probability that Alyssa’s daughter could follow in her footsteps, perhaps expanding wearable electronic textiles in ways that haven’t yet been conceived, even by Alyssa herself.

This Barrier Breaker profile is part of a series focusing on researchers at the NSA's material science laboratory. To meet some of Alyssa's amazing colleagues and learn more about how primary research at NSA helps benefit society (and keeps our country safe), check out our story Inventing the Future at NSA Labs.